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  • Irina Olimpieva works at the Center for Independent Social Research, St. Petersburg, Russia, as a researcher and the head of the research direction “Social Studies of the Economy.” She has received her PhD in Economic Sociology at St. Petersburg State University of Economics and Finance. Her basic research interests are in the field of economic sociology, with particular focus on labor issues, informal economy, and problems of post-socialist transformation. Irina Olimpieva is the author of more than 30 articles in Russian and foreign journals, and a monograph (in Russian), and a coeditor of six books and brochures. Currently, she is a visiting scholar at SAIS John Hopkins University in Washington, DC.

Irina Olimpieva, Center for Independent Social Research, Postal Box 193, 191040, St. Petersburg, Russia. Telephone: + 7-812-718-3796. E-mail:;


This article provides analytical description of the labor movement in Russia with a particular focus on the differences between two types of labor unions: the “official” unions, affiliated with the Soviet-legacy Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR), and the so-called free or alternative labor unions, which do not belong to FNPR. Free labor unions differ from official unions in many respects, including their militant nature and conflict-based ideology, grassroots methods of labor mobilization and organization, and the economic resources that they use. Today, one can speak about two different modes of labor interest representation at the enterprise level that exist at the same time. The first is the distributional mode based on cooperation between the employer and union that is more typical for the “official” unions. The second is the protest mode, which is focused on the defense of labor rights, confrontation with the employer, and which is mainly applied by “free” labor unions. While official labor unions continue to dominate the organized labor scene, in recent years, they faced growing competition from their alternative counterparts. Overall, the dominance of the distributive system over the protest model signifies the preservation of the dominance of management in labor relations, squeezing unions to the sidelines in serving workers. The generally antiunion new Labor Code, based on the tripartite model of social partnership, has solidified the institutional exclusion of free labor unions from the system of labor–capital relations and provides almost no possibility for organized labor protest. However, in recent years, according to independent monitoring, the overall number of unregistered protest actions, as well as the intensity of the actions, has been growing.